It’s playoff time again, which means it’s also time for our Breaking It Down series. That’s where I – and I alone – take a look at the post-season matchups and provide is a snapshot of the action to come. This edition features a look at the Western Conference matchup between the St. Louis Blues and the Chicago Blackhawks. Game One is on Wednesday.
Conventional wisdom says the Blues are in tough against the defending Stanley Cup champs and that’s certainly worth addressing. The Blues faced the Blackhawks in the 2014 post-season, after all, and had an early lead in the series before Chicago came blustering back and went on a long run. Two years later, the rivals will be back for more and this should be a nasty affair.
The Blackhawks are motivated to repeat as champions, of course, and that makes them a dangerous team to face – especially in the first round. They have three titles in six seasons and don’t seem ready to slow down. Conversely, St. Louis has a series of disappointments in their wake and will look to overcome the past. They’ve left the post-season in the first round of the past three seasons, so they’ll be hungry.
Chicago’s Corey Crawford just keeps getting better, if you can believe it. The 31-year-old from Montreal had a 35-18-5 record, a 2.37 goals against average and a .924 save percentage. He put up a career-best seven shutouts, all while the Blackhawks saw a decline in their puck possession stats. Crawford is coming off an injury, but he had the chance to shake off some rust against the Blue Jackets to close out the season. If he falters, Scott Darling is on deck.
It looks like the Blues will be going with Brian Elliott to start, which signals a change of sorts. Jake Allen was shut down for the final week of NHL action thanks to a lower body injury, but it does look like he’ll be back at some point. That suggests it could be a war between the pipes, with St. Louis riding the hot hand. It’s an approach that’s worked wonders in the past, especially if Elliott’s able to ride the wave of competition. He’s a better goalie when he’s being chased.
Ken Hitchcock is a defensively-minded guy and his Blues have bought the program. They’re a parsimonious hockey club and that could spell trouble for Chicago’s big guns. Alex Pietrangelo and Jay Bouwmeester have accounted for the top pairing and they’ll log huge minutes in the post-season, while Kevin Shattenkirk and Carl Gunnarsson provide a nice offensive-defensive balance as the second pair. Watch for Colton Parayko to make an impact, too.
Chicago will be without Duncan Keith for Game One thanks to his suspension, but it’ll be back to business as usual after that. He’ll lead the team in minutes and he’ll be effective at both ends of the ice. Niklas Hjalmarsson will complete the top pairing and that’s still a tough combination, even if Keith’s possession numbers took a dip thanks to more starts in his own end. Brent Seabrook will be a factor as well, especially if the Blackhawks can find him right partner.
As mentioned, Chicago’s possession numbers have been down all season. That’s not to say the team had trouble scoring, with Patrick Kane leading the league and Artemi Panarin leading all rookies in goals, assists and points. Throw in the fact that Artem Anisimov reached 20 goals for the first time in his career and you’re looking at a great group. And that’s just the second line. Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa and Andrew Ladd account for the top unit. They’ll have to be better, with Toews and Hossa having off years.
The forward depth of the Blues is the stuff of legend and Hitchcock will continue to roll out a top nine that rivals any team in the NHL. The problem is health, with David Backes missing a stride or two thanks to a late-season injury. Luckily, Alexander Steen will put in a lot of work and Paul Stastny, Robby Fabbri and Troy Brouwer account for a pesky line of their own. There’s also 40-goal scorer Vladimir Tarasenko, who’s probably a pretty good hockey player.
The Blues will come to play and they’ve got the depth to hold on. Superstars like Tarasenko can fill the net and their forward unit is capable of rolling three lines without missing a beat. They’re defensively sturdy and their netminding is on-point. But the Blackhawks are an even match in these categories, plus they have the experience edge.
Hitchcock is on the bubble and his job could be riding on whether or not he can push his team past the first round. The heat is on. As for Chicago, this is old hat. They’ve been here before and they’ll likely be here for a lot longer. They’ve got the gumption if they can gain some ground in the possession game.
With these factors in mind, I’m going out on a limb with the upset: St. Louis in six games.